Thursday, May 31, 2012

On the radio

I've had a long love-hate relationship with classical radio. When I was growing up in a small town in Iowa it was the only way to get exposure to new concert music. Nobody believes me, but for most of the time I was growing up there was no record store in my home town, and of course this was long before iTunes and Spotify (or the web, or digital recording, for that matter). Listening to an unfamiliar orchestral composition meant driving 45 minutes to buy a cassette tape, so I would spend hours listening to Minnesota Public Radio. And I had no idea how lucky I was; MPR remains to this day by far the best-programmed classical radio I've ever come across.

Since then I've lived in several upscale media markets, but classical programming on the radio has been, for the most part, extremely disappointing: endless forgettable baroque recordings, tedious repeats of the warhorses of the repetoire, a skittish approach to anything written after 1900, and lame DJs who seem to know nothing about the music they're playing. (Embarrassingly ignorant compared to, say, the sonic nerds DJing at the average college radio station.)

But sooner or later I always wind up craving the local station for the clock alarm or driving music, and so after swearing off the low end of the FM dial for a while I eventually always tune back in. Fortunately, a formerly commercial classical station in the Bay Area (few playlists are more banal than the rotation of a commercial classical station!) has switched to a listener-supported format, and these days it's not bad.

Of course, in this day and age I can easily access a huge cross-section of the "classical" repetoire on line. Still, I find myself fascinated by the radio stations. A big part of it is how random the programming of the average "classical" station is. Almost every other format on the dial is meticulously targeted. Multiple subsegments of pop, adult contemporary, MOR, oldies, hip-hop, high-wattage smooth jazz versus low-wattage late-night bebop -- most music stations deliver reliable product, and often with a great deal of wit and depth in their stylistically-focused selections.

The classical radio playlist, on the other hand, is usually a ridiculous pastiche. In one sitting you can hear a baroque dance suite, light 19th-century piano music, maybe a single movement of a Mozart symphony, a contemporary film theme arranged for guitar, a warhorse of a Tchaikovsky piano concerto or a Mendelssohn violin concerto, and so on. Historically and stylistically speaking, the classical station is far more eclectic than a station that played, for example, Britney Spears followed by Dixieland followed by Kraftwerk followed by Bing Crosby followed by Radiohead followed by... well, you get the idea. The sloppiest Pandora channel has more coherence than the typical classical FM playlist.

And yet, even though I periodically give up in despair, I always wind up tuning in again sooner or later. Maybe I'm fascinated by 400 years of Western culture's essential musical heritage being neglected and forgotten to a degree that would never be tolerated for Shakespeare or Van Gogh or Rodin. Maybe I'm drawn to train wrecks. And maybe it's just that I love the music and the repertoire as a whole. But eventually I always find myself sitting behind the wheel in traffic, listening to a DJ who seems to know nothing about music introduce a piece in mangled French or German with information so minimal that it would be unacceptable in the most basic music appreciation class. I miss MPR, but hope springs eternal that someday I'll find something just as good somewhere in the lower frequencies of the local FM market.


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Around the Bay Area: Fogbank


Saturday, May 26, 2012

Solar eclipse